I Would Rather Have Two Girls at 21 Each Than One At 42

W. C. Fields? Great Lester? Fred Allen? Anonymous Vaudevillian?

wcfields10Dear Quote Investigator: I have been trying to trace the following gag:

I’d rather have two girls at 21 each than one girl at 42.

This line is usually attributed to the famous comedian W. C. Fields who played cantankerous and henpecked characters in movies. Would you please explore its provenance? I recognize that today some would label the joke sexist and ageist.

Quote Investigator: W. C. Fields did sing this line while taking a shower in the 1939 film “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man”. 1 However, the joke was already well-known to humorists before this film was shot.

The earliest strong match located by QI was printed in “The Seattle Daily Times” of Seattle, Washington in 1915. An advertisement for “The Pantages” theater mentioned a vaudeville performer named Great Lester and described his act as follows: 2

World’s Foremost Ventriloquist in His Cleverest and Funniest Exhibition! (He’s a Riot, Folks.)

The same newspaper page featured a section titled “Lines From Current Vaudeville” which recounted jokes that were being used in local venues. Here were two examples. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

“An optimist is a person who doesn’t give a whoop what happens so long as it doesn’t happen to him.”
—Howard & McCane, Orpheum.

“I would rather have two girls at 17 than one at 34.”
—Lester, Pantages.

The number of years specified in the quip was variable, e.g., 16, 17, 18, and 21. QI believes that the line was used by multiple comedians. QI does not know whether Great Lester crafted the statement or lifted it from a fellow performer.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Would Rather Have Two Girls at 21 Each Than One At 42

Notes:

  1. Subzin; Movie Subtitle Search, Movie: You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, Year of Movie: 1939, Time stamp for quotation: 00:17:15, Quotation Line 01: I’d rather have two girls at 21 each, Quotation Line 02: Than one girl at 42. (Accessed on Subzin on April, 28 2015)
  2. 1915 February 23, The Seattle Daily Times, (Advertisement for the Pantages theater), Quote Page 9, Column 1, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1915 February 23, The Seattle Daily Times, Lines From Current Vaudeville, Quote Page 9, Column 4, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)

Television Is Chewing Gum for the Eyes

Frank Lloyd Wright? John Mason Brown? Henri Peyre? Fred Allen? Dick Cavett? Anonymous?

franktv07Dear Quote Investigator: The most acerbic criticism I have heard directed at TV was attributed to the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright:

Television is just chewing gum for the eyes.

However, I recently saw the remark credited to a drama critic named John Mason Brown. Could you explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this vivid metaphor located by QI appeared in a 1944 book by Henri Peyre who was a Professor of French at Yale University. In 1944 television sets were still very expensive, and the industry was immature in the U.S. The metaphor was applied to movies and radio broadcasts instead. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Yet there is no sorrier sight to watch then the vacant faces of those former high school and college students when, at thirty-five or fifty, all their mental alertness having vanished, the spark gone from their eyes, they dutifully chew their gum to keep from yawning, while absorbing the chewing gum for the eyes of the movies or the chewing gum for the ears of the radio.

The same men who once read Shakespeare, Molière, Byron glance at the headlines of their tabloid papers, turn straight to the page of the funnies, to devour them with the same dutiful sense of boredom as they swallow their hamburger at lunchtime and their highball after dinner.

More than a decade later this figurative language was applied to another communication medium. In January 1955 Steven H. Scheur who was a well-known film critic visited the “book-lined New York apartment” of John Mason Brown who was a prominent theater critic. They discussed the quality of the programs broadcast on television. Brown applied the chewing-gum metaphor to TV: 2

Although Brown is generally recognized as our most eminent theater essayist—Saturday Review of Literature—he confesses to a special partiality for TV news shows.

“So much of TV seems to be chewing gum for the eyes. … TV desperately needs more self-reliance and pride in the medium.”

By 1958 the remark was being credited to the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Television Is Chewing Gum for the Eyes

Notes:

  1. 1944, Writers and Their Critics: A Study of Misunderstanding by Henri Peyre (Sterling Professor of French at Yale University), Quote Page 291, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1955 January 21, Syracuse Herald-Journal, Ed Murrow To Call on Critic Brown by Steven H. Scheur, Quote Page 32, Column 1, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive)